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A Survey of Media: The Iran Hostage Crisis

By Stephanie DeLuca

[1] Bob Anders recognizes that his fellow houseguests' "little story" became a "footnote" over time (Wald). The same is true for the former hostages; many people today are unaware that the surviving hostages – not houseguests – are still seeking justice from the U.S. government. The survivors have battled for over thirty years for a court judgment against a state sponsor of terrorism, but with changing policies, court reversals, and conflicting legal options, the former hostages have been largely unsuccessful (Lawrence). Affleck's controversial, historically inaccurate film is appreciated by many in its function, as Mark Lijek puts it, as "a necessary and enjoyable mechanism for introducing a younger generation to the origins of our confrontation with Iran" (Lijek, "I was rescued").

[2] And, really, what are the options: a revival-by-film or a revival-by-tragedy? When Adam Lanza tore through Sandy Hook Elementary and fatally shot twenty children and six adult staff members (December 2012), media referenced James Eagan Holmes, a young man who murdered twelve The Dark Knight Rises moviegoers in Aurora, Colorado (July 2012). A short while later, the media spoke of the Aurora shooting within the context of Seung-Hui Cho's brutal attack on the Virginia Tech community (2007), the deadliest incident by a single gunman in the United States. And news coverage concerning Virginia Tech circled back to high-schoolers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold of Columbine. The passage of time and coverage of other breaking stories reduced these tragedies to references, only to be revived when a catastrophe within a similar narrative strikes.

[3] Our questions regarding 21st century media can address the extent it is fair to hold films like Argo accountable for historical inaccuracies when its stakeholders do not claim to be representing whole truth. We can analyze, over-analyze, and nitpick moments in film and debate an artistic license or error of judgment (like I did in my scene analysis). We can ask to what extent it is acceptable to hold our American history books accountable for the embellishments of American bravado when we should, perhaps, be taking different perspectives into account. But I think the more prolific question to ask is at what point do we stop and think, "Hey, I'm the only constant in this media circus; rather than make the argument against others' credibility or lack of accountability, and complain in the process, why don't I do something productive and educate myself?"

[4] As much as I wish I could have been a fly on the wall in the seventies, my readings on American sentiment during that time period will have to do. A majority was distrustful of the government after the Watergate scandal; the Vietnam War continued to divide the country; oil was expensive; and the economy was going down the toilet. In terms of media, topics that were once too taboo were becoming televised. At the end of the 1970s, ABC News capitalized on the hostage crisis in Iran. Four days after the takeover, ABC President Roone Arledge saw the crisis as an opportunity to compete with its rival NBC. He created a show called "The Iran Crisis – America Held Hostage: Day xxx," where the three x's accounted for each day of captivity. The show would eventually be called Nightline. Ted Koppel replaced Frank Reynolds as news anchor shortly after the show's opening. The American people were glued to the television and radio for 444 days, and Koppel said that "it was not unusual for [them] to have ten million people watching the program" (GQ).

[5] Koppel recounts a run-in with Jimmy Carter a few years after the hostages had been freed. Carter said that "‘there were only two people who really benefited from all of that—you and Ayatollah Khomeini.' Certainly, it boosted my career way beyond anything I'd ever dreamed of. I'm forever sorry that it came at the pain of so many people, but that's what we news people do, cover stories like that" (GQ). According to David Farber the issue wasn't always the quality but the abundance of coverage; the "nation itself was held hostage by the crisis." Former Delta Force Operations Officer Bucky Burruss admits to watching Nightline "religiously." One of the hostages was a Marine security guard, and Burruss remembers watching footage of his young sister crying on Christmas Eve. He recalls thinking "you sons of bitches, we're coming after you" (GQ). A Midwest station manager went so far as to tie himself to a chair to better understand what the American hostages were going through (Mendez 48).

[6] Emotionalism surely played a role in the discrimination and violence against American-Iranians. Two Iranian students were found gagged and shot to death in California (New York Times, 5 January 1980); an Iranian student killed a teenager in "self-defense" when his apartment was attacked (New York Times, 17 December 1980); two Saudi Arabians were attacked by assailants who mistook them for Iranians; one of the men was hospitalized (New York Times, 5 November 1980); a straight-A Iranian student at Atlantic City High School was banned from delivering the valedictorian address after 80 of the school's 140 teachers signed a petition objecting to her as the valedictorian (New York Times, 6 June 1980); and some U.S. banks refused to honor Iranian students' checks (New York Times, 18 December 1979).

[7] Of course, the hostage takers' actions should not be excused; what occurred over the 444-day period was an international breach of law and poor demonstration of humanity. But just as it's important to understand America's frame of mind in the 1970s, it's fair to attempt to understand the students' motivations behind the embassy sit in. The intense fear and anger among Iran's people since the 1953 coup d'état was exacerbated by the Shah's corruption and authoritarian rule, censorship, and a dramatically increasing gap between the rich and the poor. When the Carter administration welcomed the exiled Shah to the United States, Iranians were terrified of another coup d'état and infuriated that such a ruthless murderer was being protected by a superpower like the United States. Because the United States was not hearing Iran's plea, a sit-in was staged to give Iran a voice. Things escalated very quickly until an unplanned revolution began and the nonviolent protestors were overpowered by opposing political forces (Bowden, The Independent).

[8] And let's pause for a moment and consider the motivations behind the revolution as they relate to the international Occupy movement in 2011. The Occupy movement was a protest against social and economic inequality grounded in a fear of the power and control of big corporations and government. Plausible or not and certainly with a different result than the Iranian hostage-takers, the movement was structured in a way that allowed marginalized groups to speak in front of more dominant groups. The members were committed to nonviolence. Media was both a resource and source of contention for the occupiers, as it turned out to be for the Iranian students in different ways.

[9] There was a strangeness in American journalists' freedom to roam Tehran while dozens of their fellow countrymen were held hostage. Although Americans were never meant to be blindfolded and paraded in front of the press (Bowden, The Independent), Mendez says that the students "organized staged events, handed over signed ‘confessions,' and ferreted out the most malleable of the hostages to give false statements about the conditions of their captivity" (Mendez 49). Young Iranian Niloufar Ebtekar, known as "Tehran Mary" in Argo, lived and studied in the United States before returning to Iran for education. She was selected as a spokesperson for the Iranian student protestors for her near-perfect English and very much disliked by the hostages for her propagandizing. She would "saunter through the captured embassy with a camera crew in tow, urging the hostages to describe their ordeal in upbeat terms." Former hostage and political officer Michael Metrinko, a political officer at the embassy, "wouldn't piss on [Ebtekar] . . . if she were on fire in the street"(GQ). Ken Taylor, Canadian Ambassador, said that this "tremendous . . . manipulation" and "role playing" was one of the "low points" (Wright 200). But an interesting side-note: US propagandist Richard Cottam estimated that "four fifths of the newspapers in Tehran were under CIA influence" in the years leading up to the 1953 coup, and articles he wrote would "appear almost instantly . . . in the Iranian press." They were "designed to show Mosaddeq as a Communist collaborator" and "fanatic" (Kinzer 6).

[10] For the most part, the hostages were unaware of the world outside the embassy walls for the tenure of their captivity. When Metrinko was browsing through a newspaper after arriving at the military hospital in Germany, he "did not know that anyone was interested or cared"; but he "looked at one of the photographs and thought, My God, it looks just like my grandfather's portrait. Then I realized it was the portrait that hung in our dining room at home, and that the people standing under it were my mother and father. Why it would be in The New York Times I had no idea" (GQ).

[11] There were moments when American and Iranian media brutally collided. Former ABC correspondent in Tehran Mark Colvin describes a day that the media were told to congregate at a side gate of the American embassy:

We entered the compound, and in the middle of this big courtyard about forty chairs faced a pile of tarpaulins. We were told to sit. Eventually, a short, fat ayatollah, Ayatollah Khalkhali, arrived. He was known as "the cat strangler" because once, during a TV interview, a reporter asked, "What would you do if the Shah came back tomorrow?" And Khalkhali had a cat on his lap, which he picked up and strangled in front of the camera. That's the way he rolled. He proceeded to harangue us in Farsi for half an hour, screaming a lot of the time. About halfway through, the Revolutionary Guards started taking off the tarpaulins. Beneath were some wooden crates, and they started opening them, and Khalkhali started pulling out all these blackened pieces. We were all trying to work out what these things were. Then he picked up one of these objects and started scraping at it with a pocketknife, and gradually you made out a wristwatch and you suddenly realized he was holding the blackened arm of an American. These were the remains of the men who had come to rescue the hostages. (GQ)

[12] L. Paul Bremer III, Ambassador at Large for Counter-terrorism, said in 1987 that it is the wider audience that terrorist groups seek to engage and that threats are made more complex by "the interplay among media, governments, and terrorists." The acts themselves and the way governments and terrorist organizations respond to them creates a tension, while media's version of those responses implicates and exacerbates that tension. It was strange that 1979 media were so invested in the crisis yet never reported the exact number of hostages; La Presse Canadian reporter Jean Pelletier first pieced together the truth about the houseguest situation on December 11, 1979. Pelletier's editor wanted to run the story immediately, but Pelletier refused: "You can imagine what the consequences would be for the Canadians in Tehran, not to mention the houseguests. I wouldn't put my by-line on this story now. No way" (Wright 252).

[13] A recent example of this threat are the suspenseful and agonizing hours following the Boston Marathon bombings, in which the Boston Police Department pleaded with the public not to disclose their location on social media sites while they searched for the suspect at large. We were glued to the police scanner and frantically following Twitter, retweeting and commenting on anything intriguing or of interest. But there could have been catastrophic repercussions to civilians and officials if the officers' location was discovered by the suspect. The main point I'd like to suggest is that traditional journalists (and now citizen journalists) do not simply narrate the passing scene anymore; whether they like it or not, they are players in a digital age that allows anyone across the globe to track real-time responses (Bremer).

[14] But we have to be able to identify and be sensitive to conflicting information. What are the repercussions of agreeing with side A without fully understanding side B? Antonio Mendez puts a different spin on Pelletier's discovery in his recent book How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled off the Most Audacious Rescue in History. Mendez states that "just when [he, Mendez] thought it couldn't get any more complicated, [he] learned that a Canadian journalist in Washington was onto the story and wanted to go public." (Didn't he just say he would never go public?) Peter Towe, Canadian ambassador to the United States, had to ask Pelletier to "sit on the story until the Americans got out," and Pelletier agreed. This was obviously "much," according Mendez, "to the relief of Washington and Ottawa." But there is a big difference between being asked to hold off on a story and knowing that it is the moral thing to do. Minimizing a player's role in a book – that is an autobiographical account of your own heroic act, no less – makes you look like an egotistical prick. Secondly, it pisses off a lot of people who had a stake in the rescue – arguably those who had more of a stake than you.

[15] And for those who can't help argue why Affleck's reconstruction is not held at as high as standard as Mendez: the man behind the message is more important than the medium. Antonio Mendez was chief of authentication in the U.S. Graphics and Authentication Division of the CIA's Office of Technical Services. A man who engineered the exfiltration, lived, and breathed is responsible for getting it "right" in any form. The biggest issue with Argo, as is true with the rest of the Reel American History projects, is what people do with the information in front of them. Our duty as players in this digital age is to refrain from passing on a hatred built on ignorance and emotion; we have to learn of the history from "experts," become an "expert," and then distance ourselves from those who call themselves experts. Watch films and identify troubling moments; consume media and question it. Live by the phrase there are two sides to every story. There is no harm in exploring, and people know more about the hostage crisis and the years leading up to it than they ever did before.